Former county welfare building may become housing

Developers are eying Hennepin County’s old welfare building, 111 E. Franklin Ave., for conversion to housing, county officials said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said she was optimistic the Ramar building could become a mixed-use housing development, designed with neighborhood help. Steve Cramer, director of the county’s housing, community works and transit department, said developers recently toured the building and talked about "adding floors to try to capture views of downtown."

At Dorfman’s urging, the Whittier and Stevens Square neighborhood groups are forming a joint task force to work with the county on the project. Both neighborhoods border Franklin Avenue.

The county board has not voted to sell the Ramar building yet, "but that is very much what staff is recommending," Dorfman said. "We have discussed it. No one has said, at this point, ‘We want to keep the building.’ For one, we don’t need the space. It is too expensive for us to rehabilitate."

The 55,000-square-foot building needs significant repairs — a new roof, windows and asbestos abatement, said Richard Johnson, deputy county administrator. The county would likely need to spend a half million dollars to fix the asbestos problems prior to sale.

The county still has a few employees in the building.

Cramer said that if the board chooses to sell the Ramar Building through its Housing and Redevelopment Authority, it would give it leverage in shaping the project, what he called "a directed outcome."

"I am looking at this as something that will get a lot of focus in the first part of next year," Cramer said.

Dorfman said she had promised the neighborhood groups the county board would not make any decisions on the building until neighbors have had a chance to look at options.